Memes and Mortar: Hip Hop and the old South Bronx (2010, revised 2016)


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From the introduction:

These pages explore the relationship between youth culture and the built environment of the South Bronx of the mid-to-late 1970s.  My initial thesis was that the experience of shock and displacement that characterized life in the poorest sections of the borough also informed the aesthetics of rap, graffiti, and break dancing.  Free from any anxiety of influence, early hip hop was unique among twentieth-century arts movements for its ability to re-present the here-and-now mimetically, ecstatically, and to transcend the banality of ghettoized life thereby.  

As it happens, the here-and-now of the old South Bronx was a dystopia of epic proportions, as well as a kind of allegory for all kinds of modern/postmodern crises both political and personal. “It is as if the Bronx,” writes Marshall Berman, “in the depths of its disintegration, came to symbolize the twentieth-century world.” [1.]  In recognition of this, I also consider what the lower borough’s collapse meant, if anything, to the metropolis and the nation.     

In a few posts, especially “The Spectacle of the Ruins,” “The Valley of Ashes” and “Back Story / the Cross-Bronx Expressway,” I discuss the postwar history of the borough leading up to the emergence of hip hop. Readers interested to know more might want to start with Jill Jonnes’ South Bronx Rising and Evelyn Gonzalez’s The Bronx.